Category Archives: General Safety

Remembering the Victims of Maryland Route 210

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

On June 25, I had the opportunity to represent the NTSB at the Route 210 “Dignity of Life” Observance in Prince George’s Country, Maryland, where I have spent most of my adult life. Although the observance had tragic roots, it was good to see some attention paid to the toll taken by crashes in this largely Black area.

After the jubilation of Juneteenth, it was a gut-wrenching reminder of one of our greatest remaining inequities as a nation. Statistics show that Blacks and other minority groups are disproportionately likely to die in crashes.

Total crash deaths skyrocketed to an estimate of almost 43,000 in 2021. If we are to reduce the surging totals, we must also be intentional about our efforts in these underprivileged, underserved, and vulnerable communities.

This solemn and dignified gathering was to remember the irreplaceable, individual human beings who have been lost, and continue to be lost, on Maryland Route 210. Eighty people have died in crashes there between 2007 and the present. One of them was the husband of my NTSB colleague Susan Pipkin. At the event, Susan’s daughter, Diamond, said, “He was just thrown from his motorcycle, and it shook our lives,” as she broke into tears.  Like bicyclists and pedestrians, motorcycle riders are vulnerable road users and are overrepresented in fatality statistics nationwide.

Every loss on our roads is a tragedy. Every one of these losses is preventable. And, as I said to the families of the victims, every one of their loved ones was an individual, irreplaceable, had dignity and humanity, and deserved to live.

At the NTSB, we investigate crashes in all modes of transportation. We focus on answering one question, the same question that family members also ask after such a tragedy: Why? Unlike victims’ families and loved ones, though, we must be as objective as possible and look at the same question from an investigator’s point of view. We strive to turn our findings into action by issuing safety recommendations. However, we can only recommend changes—lawmakers, industry, and others must act on them.

I have worked enough with victim and survivor advocates to know that these tragedies are not one-time events. The loss persists and reemerges in so many ways: every time they look across the holiday table to the seat their loved one used to take, every time there is a birthday or a wedding anniversary that they used to celebrate, whenever they go to dial a number to share something with someone who is forever disconnected.

As we approach the Fourth of July holiday, a notoriously dangerous time on our nation’s roads, there’s no better time to take stock of how we’re protecting road users in all communities. This means reflecting on all parts of the system, not just on the behaviors of drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and riders. We must adopt a Safe System Approach that builds in redundancy so that when one part of the system fails, road users don’t lose their lives. We owe all road users nothing less than our determination that one day, Maryland Route 210 will be another safe road in a safe system, one with zero road deaths and zero serious injuries. And we must ensure that we are making equitable safety investments.

We don’t lose 43,000 faceless statistics every year, we lose 43,000 loved ones. They are irreplaceable. They are precious. The lives of those left behind are shaken, forever changed.

The families I met on June 25 are members of a club none of them ever wanted to join. The best way to honor the life of Mr. Pipkin and the lives of countless others who perished on our roads is to close the door to the club forever.

Reaching Zero, from Helsinki to Hoboken

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

This is the last post in a three-part series examining the safety of vulnerable road users, as new federal data show a rise in traffic deaths among motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians last year. You can read the first two posts here and here.

I just got back from Helsinki, Finland, where I attended the International Transportation Safety Association’s annual meeting.

I am amazed at the Finn’s approach to road safety, especially their focus on road design and infrastructure that separates and protects pedestrians and bicyclists from each other and road traffic, which has enabled them to achieve a safety feat in their capital city that people in the United States still consider impossible: zero pedestrian deaths.

Pedestrian crossing sign in Helsinki

A Tale of Two Countries

The public health crisis on U.S. roads is devastating and getting worse. People at the greatest risk are vulnerable road users, which includes anyone lacking the protection of a vehicle in the event of a crash, such as bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians.

In fact, bicyclist deaths were up 5% over 2020 levels, while motorcyclist deaths increased 9% over the same period, according to 2021 estimates recently released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). But the most astonishing take-away is that pedestrian deaths soared 13% to 7,342 lives lost in 2021.

That means, every single day last year, more than 20 families had to plan a funeral because their loved one was killed while walking, running, or rolling on our roads.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not in Finland.

For a fair international comparison, we can look to the estimated 2019 roadway death rate provided by the World Health Organization. Using this apples-to-apples measure, it’s easy to see how much more dangerous our roads are.

For every 100,000 people in each country, less than four died on Finland’s roads in 2019. That’s the same year Finland’s capital of Helsinki recorded zero pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities.

In the U.S.? Over a dozen people died on our roads for every 100,000 — more than triple Finland’s death rate.

Lessons from Helsinki to Hoboken

Many villages, towns, and cities around the world are having incredible success in saving the lives of vulnerable road users, including here in the United States. And they all have one thing in common.

Whether we’re talking about Helsinki or Hoboken, New Jersey (which has achieved zero traffic deaths for four consecutive years!), these communities all embrace the Safe System approach.

Far from a new fad, the Safe System approach derives from the Vision Zero movement in the 1990’s in Sweden, when it was called Vision Zero. It’s a philosophy or way of thinking, not a single action or “quick fix.” The core belief is that even one roadway death or serious injury is too many. 

It’s so successful that Protect Vulnerable Road Users Through a Safe System Approach is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. 

Places that successfully eliminate traffic deaths through the Safe System approach understand that all parts of society share the responsibility for roadway safety:

  • This includes government workers in agencies at the local, state, and federal levels that design and build our roads — and set and enforce the speed limits.
  • It includes the people who make life-and-death decisions every day at companies that manufacture vehicles. Decisions like which safety technology comes standard and how to market new features ethically, among others.
  • It includes emergency responders who arrive on-scene following a crash, from the firefighter to the tow truck driver and everyone in between.
  • And it includes individual road users, who must make safe choices every time they walk, run, bike, drive, or roll.

The Safe System in Practice

What does a Safe System look like in practice? Here’s how Hoboken and Helsinki are bringing the concepts of safe streets, safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe road users, and post-crash care to life.

One of the biggest opportunities to move the needle on safety across the U.S. lies in safe vehicles. The NTSB has made many recommendations to NHTSA that, once implemented, will save lives by making new cars safer for people outside the vehicle. Here are a few of our recommendations:

  • Develop test criteria for vehicle designs that reduce injuries to pedestrians, which NTSB has recommended since 2017 — and has been a reality in Europe since 1997.
  • Test and require new cars to be equipped with technologies that prevent collisions with vulnerable road users, such as pedestrian automated emergency braking. This is something our European counterparts have been doing since 2016, and which we’ve recommended since 2018.
  • Incentivize vehicle manufacturers and consumers to adopt intelligent speed adaptation systems (ISA) by including ISA in the New Car Assessment Program. Even though NTSB recommended this back in 2017, Europe is again ahead of us: ISA systems in passenger vehicles will be mandatory in the European Union starting next month.

For even more NTSB recommendations aimed at saving the lives of vulnerable road users, check out the NTSB’s special investigation report on pedestrian safety and my earlier post on bicyclist safety.

Zero: A Bold — But Achievable — Goal

If you think Helsinki or Hoboken are outliers when it comes to eliminating roadway deaths, think again.

This interactive map shows places all over the world that have done it — many for several years in a row, including here in the U.S. (You can change the map language to English by clicking the flag in the top-right corner.)

The DEKRA Vision Zero Map records all cities with over 50,000 inhabitants that have gone at least one calendar year without traffic deaths in built-up areas since 2009.

To be sure, zero is a bold goal. But it’s not impossible. The current world leader is Siero, Spain, which has had zero roadway fatalities for over a decade.

That’s a safety record worth celebrating…and stopping at nothing to emulate. The NTSB will continue to push our safety partners at NHTSA, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and in state and local governments to implement our recommendations to move our country farther along the road to zero.

We Need to Change the Bike Safety Conversation

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

This is the second in a three-part series examining the safety of vulnerable road users, as new federal data show a rise in traffic deaths among motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians last year. Read the first post.

I love nearly everything about bicycles, from riding around Virginia to creating art for the NTSB office with old parts. I say “nearly” everything because U.S. roads are far too dangerous for bicyclists — and it’s getting worse.

Wall art by Chair Homendy from bicycle parts hangs at NTSB headquarters

On World Bicycle Day, I’m calling on every road user to help change the conversation.

Outdated Thinking is Deadly

Bicycles have been around for two centuries. But that’s no excuse for our safety approach to be stuck in the past, as it currently is.

We have to stop telling bicyclists not to get injured. We have to let go of the idea that educating bike riders will solve the problem. This type of thinking is too narrow to stem the public health crisis on our roads — and clinging to it is proving to be deadly.

Chair Homendy on a bike ride with NTSB team member Ivan Cheung

Of course, we implore all road users to make safe choices to protect themselves and others. But we’re missing the bigger picture when we only focus on individuals’ actions. It’s certainly not how we get to our goal of zero traffic deaths!

Instead, we should be talking about how the entire system is failing to protect bicyclists and other vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and motorcyclists. This means asking new questions such as the following:

  • Are vehicles equipped with technology to prevent crashes with bicyclists?
  • Are drivers traveling at speeds that would make it unlikely for a bicyclist to survive a crash?
  • Is the road itself designed to prevent crashes and protect bicyclists?
  • If a crash does occur, how effective was the emergency response in its goal of saving lives and treating injuries?  

These questions help us “zoom out” and see that we can’t solve our road safety crisis by focusing solely on individual road users. We also have to consider safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe roads, and post-crash care. That’s why Protect Vulnerable Road Users through a Safe System Approach is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. 

In a truly Safe System, the safety burden is shared by all, from individual road users to traffic safety and highway engineers, regulators, vehicle manufacturers, and more. Absolutely everyone is responsible for preventing crashes.

Because even one death is one too many.

Tragically, the stakes have never been higher. According to data released last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 985 cyclists died on our roads last year — a 5% increase over 2020 levels. Combined with the 9% increase in motorcycle deaths and the 13% jump in pedestrian deaths, you can see how dire the situation is for vulnerable road users.

We have to do better. And that means considering all components of a Safe System. The best place to start is with the implementation of NTSB safety recommendations.

Here are just some of the ways we could make streets safe for all road users:

  • Invest in bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, like separated bike lanes and safety treatments at intersections. The recent infrastructure law presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make such lifesaving investments.
  • Reduce speeds, especially in areas where there are a lot of vulnerable road users, like bicyclists. This can be accomplished through infrastructure improvements, like road diets; granting local jurisdictions the authority to set safe speeds for their own community and implement speed safety camera programs; and requiring auto manufacturers to install advanced speed-limiting technology on vehicles.
  • Require in-vehicle technologies, such as automatic emergency braking, that can help prevent crashes before they occur — and not just crashes with other cars and trucks, but with bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorcyclists as well.
  • Require large vehicles to be equipped with visibility-enhancement systems to better detect cyclists and pedestrians in their blind spots.
  • Prevent impaired driving, which leads to one in four traffic fatalities. NHTSA should require vehicles to come equipped with technology that will detect and prevent drunk driving. States should lower the per se blood alcohol content (BAC) to .05, an action only Utah has taken (with proven success!). States should also implement laws requiring all drivers convicted of alcohol-impaired driving to use an interlock device.
  • Require front, side, and rear underride guards on newly manufactured trucks to protect cyclists and pedestrians from going beneath large trucks.
  • Collect and analyze data, including hospital data, on the level of bicycling activity, crashes, and injuries. State and local leaders should use this data to design countermeasures and evaluate outcomes to measure effectiveness. How do you know if a project or program is successful if you aren’t tracking progress?

My Next Project — And the Nation’s 

My next bike project has already begun. I’m restoring an old Sears Spaceliner that I picked up at my local thrift shop. And I’m planning a few rides with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

I’m also using World Bicycle Day as an opportunity to assign you a project of your own: Join NTSB in changing the bike safety conversation. Ask new questions. Stop putting the entire safety burden on bicyclists. Embrace the Safe System approach.

The lives of vulnerable road users depend on it.

Motorcycle Safety Is Everyone’s Responsibility

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

This is the first in a three-part series examining the safety of vulnerable road users, as new federal data show a rise in traffic deaths among motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians last year.

When it comes to learning, I’m one of those people who doesn’t just want to read about something — I want to experience it firsthand whenever possible.

That’s why I got my motorcycle endorsement.

In fact, enrolling in the training course was one of the first things I did when I became an NTSB Board Member back in 2018. I wanted to feel the thrill of operating a motorcycle, learn from my classmates about their love of riding, and gain a deeper understanding of the safety risks all riders face.

Most of all, I wanted to become a more effective safety advocate.

Photo of Chair Jennifer Homendy at a Wheels Up Motorcycle Training Course, in Fredericksburg, VA.

A Tragic New Record

Motorcyclists — motorcycle riders and their passengers — have the highest risk of fatal injury among all motor vehicle users. A major reason is that motorcycles afford riders less protection in a crash.

This means, for every mile they traveled in 2020, the average motorcyclist’s risk of death in a traffic crash was 28 times greater than that of a passenger car occupant.

The picture is only getting bleaker. New data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that 6,101 motorcyclists died on our roads last year. Not only is this an all-time high — it’s a 9% increase from 2020, which held the previous record.

That means the last two years are the deadliest on record for motorcyclists in the United States.

What Needs to be Done

We know what needs to happen to save motorcyclists’ lives.

First and foremost, we need to adopt the Safe System approach to protect  vulnerable road users, such as motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. It’s so important that it’s on our 2021-2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.

A Safe System addresses all aspects of traffic safety: road users, vehicles, speeds, roads, and post-crash care. We must make better safety investments, from road treatments, vehicle design, and collision-avoidance systems to strong traffic safety laws to mitigate risk and save lives for all road users.

But what does that mean in practice? The first step is to change the way we think and talk about safety. When it comes to motorcycle safety, it means we must stop spending so much time talking about what riders should do to mitigate their risk.

It’s not only unfair to put the full safety responsibility on motorcyclists, but it’s also ineffective. In a truly safe system, no individual road user’s action or inaction can cost them their life; there are redundancies built in so that if one part fails, a person is still protected.

The NTSB took a deep dive into motorcycle safety with our 2018 research report, which has specific recommendations to protect motorcyclists. And, because motorcyclists are at such risk in crashes with passenger vehicles, we should also heed NTSB recommendations in our reports on speeding and substance-impaired driving.

Combined, these three reports have 50 safety recommendations — that’s 50 opportunities for regulators, states, policymakers, manufacturers, and associations to save lives on our roads.

As we close out Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month and head into the deadly days of summer, now’s the perfect moment to implement NTSB safety recommendations.

The Time is Now

Getting my motorcycle endorsement helped me see the road from a rider’s perspective. It also deepened my resolve to ensure every motorcycle rider and passenger is safe on our roads.

But you don’t need to have firsthand experience to understand how dire the situation is. After all, we set a tragic new record for motorcyclist deaths last year. 

We can’t wait another day. The families of the 6,101 riders we lost last year deserve action.

A Call to Action from Kennedy

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

This week, I visited NASA, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Space-X at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. KSC has been a leader in space exploration for over 50 years. The Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle programs took off from there, as did the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Rover project, and New Horizons, the first spacecraft to visit Pluto.

To visit Launch Complex 39A and stand where the Apollo and Space Shuttle astronauts once stood before they launched into space was humbling, and as I watched Space-X’s Transporter-5 launch and land from the balcony of Operation Support Building 2 and the return of Boeing’s Starliner Spacecraft virtually, I was reminded of how important it is that we learn from the past as we advance into our future.

Exactly sixty-one years earlier, to the day, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and laid out a truly ambitious goal: landing a man on the Moon. Not just landing a man on the Moon but returning him safely to Earth. He called for national leadership and implored Congress and the country to take a firm and sustained commitment to a new course of action, “a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.” And he demanded that the whole of government, working together as one, dedicate themselves to jumpstarting a future he knew was in the best interests of our country.

The vision that President Kennedy laid out 61 years ago continues to shape our nation and the world. Today, NASA is developing its deep space rocket, the most powerful rocket it has ever built, the Space Launch System (SLS), while commercial space companies transport cargo for the federal government and private businesses to space as well as to the International Space Station (ISS). These companies have also begun transporting passengers.

Commercial spaceflight is a rapidly evolving industry and shows tremendous promise. Over the last decade, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-licensed commercial launches and re-entries have grown tremendously, from 1 licensed launch and 0 licensed re-entries in 2011 to 54 licensed launches and 6 licensed re-entries in 2021. The federal government needs to be prepared for these exciting technological advances. For NTSB, that means ensuring we remain ready if an accident occurs. If the past has taught us anything, it’s not a matter of “if” an accident will occur, it’s a matter of when.

The NTSB has investigated accidents involving space vehicles for over 30 years. In 1986, we participated in the investigation in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; in 1993, we investigated the Orbital Sciences Pegasus accident; we again participated when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry and 7 astronauts died, in 2003; and in 2004, we assisted NASA with the Genesis Sample-Return Capsule crash investigation. More recently, in 2014, we investigated the in-flight explosion of SpaceShip Two.

All this is to say, we aren’t new to commercial space. The fact is NTSB is world renowned for its reputation as the “gold standard” for thorough, fact-based, independent investigations of accidents in all modes of transportation, whether those accidents occur on our roads, railways, waterways, or in our skies. We have been at the forefront of safety and the advancement of new technologies and new ways of moving people and goods for decades. We’re used to new challenges, and we’re ready for them.

The key to our success is our independence. That independence is what sets us apart. We aren’t tasked with exploring space; that’s NASA’s mission. We aren’t tasked with promoting, licensing, or regulating the safety of the commercial space industry; that’s the job of the FAA. Our entire mission is focused on determining what happened when a tragedy occurs, why it happened, and issuing safety recommendations aimed at preventing it from happening again. In other words, our one and only goal is to save lives and prevent the reoccurrence of terrible tragedies.

These past few months, I’ve spent time with our safety partners at FAA and NASA in hopes of ensuring we’re all prepared should tragedy occur. I’ve done this because I believe that the disparate arms of the federal government must work together to ensure the safety and success of this burgeoning industry. The commercial space industry is American innovation at its finest. As a government, we don’t want to get in the way of awe-inspiring technological innovations we once thought unimaginable, but we want to provide guardrails and cooperation, guidance and protection of the public, and we all need to work together as one to make that happen.

Sixty-one years ago, President Kennedy called on us to work together for the best interests of our country. The need for all of us to work together resonates as much today. I call on our safety partners at NASA, at FAA, at the Departments of Commerce and Defense to work with us and the stakeholders who I visited this week, among others, to ensure that safety remains a top priority alongside commercial space innovation.